Marrakesh 2023: Jessica Chastain sparkles, Mads Mikkelson shows his class and Seydou Sarr confirms powerful new talent

Marrakesh International Film Festival 2023 diary: Sumptuous opening ceremony makes Cannes and Venice look like jumble sales with notions

It’s a shame that James Joyce and Europe’s greatest generation of boulevardians never made it to modern-day Marrakesh. The city’s epic take on Europe’s grandest thoroughfares is a flaneur’s dream – and its luxury hotels, from the vast gardens of the Mamounia to the impossibly hip Pestana CR7, put most European digs to shame.

Did you realise that Pestana CR7 – home of near mattress-sized pillows befitting a five-time Champions League winner – is partly owned by Cristiano Ronaldo? Don’t worry: TVs playing compilations of his greatest goals, plus the boots, signed shirts and wall decals around the hotel, more than hint at the fact.

Small wonder that the opening ceremony of the 20th Marrakesh International Film Festival makes Cannes and Venice shindigs look like jumble sales with notions.

After a moving reel about the festival foundation’s fine efforts in rural earthquake relief, the pyrotechnics begin. First we meet the festival’s glamorous jurors – including Jessica Chastain, Joanna Hogg, Alexander Skarsgaard, Camille Cotton, Joel Edgerton and Dees Rees – who line up on stage before an audience that includes the Moroccan royal family and Tilda Swinton (same difference). Then Willem Dafoe bounces up to present a lifetime-achievement award to his former scene partner Mads Mikkelsen – who makes one of the most gracious acceptance speeches in history, confirming his status as a class act. (As if to underscore that point, at a masterclass the following morning, he almost dives into the audience with his microphone so that a young differently abled fan can ask a question.)

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Jumpsuited Jessica Chastain

Many Oscar-winning actors have access to stylists, designers and make-up artists, but few are as flawless on the red carpet as the star of Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain arrives in Marrakesh – literally dripping with jewels in an Armani rhinestone jumpsuit for the opening ceremony – with several hats on, as president of the jury and the producer and star of Michel Franco’s Memory, getting its African premiere at the festival.

Chastain remains hopeful that, despite some colleagues’ citing of inadequate provisions against artificial intelligence, Sag-Aftra’s tentative agreement with the studios will squeak through a ballot of the actors who make up the union. Speaking on the red carpet, she describes the deal as “fair and just” but is careful to stress that “we’re still waiting to find out what the voters are going to choose. I only have one vote. It’s important to me what everyone else thinks as well.”

Willem Dafoe on dying

The return of Dafoe – whose incoming roles include an eccentric, patriarchal surgeon in the Venice-winning Poor Things and a netherworld policeman who, in life, was a B-movie star in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice 2 – to Morocco, where he shot The Last Temptation of Christ 25 years ago, is lots of fun. At a Marrakesh masterclass, the actor has a good giggle at a clip of his loquacious performance in The Lighthouse and iconic death scene in Platoon.

There was no conversation with Oliver Stone, the latter film’s director, he says. “It was: ‘Run from here to there. We’re going to chase you. Avoid the extras and the explosions.’ I didn’t think about Vietnam or the world. I thought about dying. Because you can’t do that on screen without imagining your own death. You are putting yourself in that place. Mostly, I was doing running. Detonating the squibs for the blood. Avoiding things. But I’ve had to die a lot since. When the real time comes, I’ve had plenty of practice: I’ll be saying, I’ve got this.”

Marrakesh review: Hit Man

Hit Man
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Director: Richard Linklater
Cert: None
Starring: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio, Retta
Running Time: 1 hr 53 mins

Richard Linklater’s lively new film stars Glen Powell – Linklater regular, vital supporting player in Hidden Figures and, thanks to Anyone But You, internet sensation – as Gary Johnson, a likable-oddball college professor who moonlights in the entrapment business for New Orleans Police Department. The drill is simple: he poses as a hitman, his would-be employer incriminates him or herself, and the police swoop in. It’s a neat double-life until there’s a complication.

Enter the femme fatale, a beautiful and witty young woman named Madison (Adria Arjona). Sparks fly at their diner meeting. Gary, posing as gun-for-hire Ron, gallantly talks her out of the hit and tells her to get in touch if she needs anything. Thus begins a torrid affair and a series of knotty lies and obfuscations.

Linklater’s 21st narrative feature film is not exactly up there with the Before Sunrise trilogy or Boyhood. Rather, it’s a fun, sexy picture that begs to be part of a double bill with Bernie, the Austin auteur’s 2011 true-crime black comedy featuring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.

Powell, who co-wrote the screenplay, makes merry with the blurred lines between his bespectacled philosophy lecturer and his bad-boy assassin. Even his police colleagues, memorably played by Retta and KC Simms, have a thing for Ron, save for Jasper (an appropriately weasly Austin Amelio), the suspicious cop whom Gary/Ron replaced.

Roll on Merrily We Roll Along, Linklater’s much-touted Sondheim adaptation.

Marrakesh review: Me Captain (Io Capitano)

Me Captain
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Director: Matteo Garrone
Cert: None
Starring: Seydou Sarr, Moustapha Fall, Issaka Sawagodo, Hichem Yacoubi
Running Time: 2 hrs 1 min

The newcomer Seydou Sarr deservedly took home the Marcello Mastroianni Award from Venice for his mesmerising performance as a Senegalese lad attempting the dangerous trek from Senegal to Europe. Sensitively drawing on real-life testimonies from sub-Saharans who have previously made the journey from Africa to Italy, the two-time Cannes winner Matteo Garrone has fashioned a fiendishly clever Homer-sized epic around the talented teenager.

Budding songwriter Seydou (Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) are 16-year-old best pals who, unknown to their families, are secretly working and saving to travel to Europe. They are not refugees; they are boys from good homes with a yearning to explore.

Despite warnings that Europe “is not like on TV”, the boys venture northwards via Mali, through the Sahara and on towards Libya. Along the way they encounter corrupt border police, illegal prisons, mafiosi, torture, extortion, slavery and all kinds of scheming moneymakers. Finally, Seydou is asked to captain an overcrowded boat to Sicily.

Remarkably, Garrone maintains a clipped pace and almost jaunty tone. The most violent acts occur off-screen as Seydou’s adventure continues. Even the darker and dystopian moments play like sequences from Mad Max movies.

As Garrone has noted, more than 27,000 people have died making this journey in the past 15 years. That point is not lost in this hugely empathetic drama, but the film remains buoyant, powered by Sarr’s performance, youthful exuberance and soaring optimism.